Language choices are among the most impactful choices that any person in a relationship makes. Let me tell you a story:
Bill and Laurie are in a divorce mediation. They’re discussing finances, and finding that they disagree on what amount of spousal support Laurie should get from Bill. There is no doubt that Bill has been the primary bread-winner. Their plan when things were going well was for Bill to make the money and for Laurie to take care of the kids and the house. That’s not an entirely uncommon plan for people to have.
In discussing what life looks like after the divorce, it was clear that Laurie would have to get a job, and that how much support Bill would pay would be impacted by what that job was and what it paid. As such, the conversation turned towards what Laurie could earn.
Before they had kids, Bill and Laurie were both on a professional track. Both were rising in the ranks of the medical field. Both had aspirations of making a good living in the next several years when they met. Laurie got pregnant soon after they got together, and when they got married, she took on the role of wife, homemaker and soon after, mom.
Over the next few years, Bill’s career continued on the expected trajectory, and Laurie’s was put aside because she and Bill had made a plan. Now that they’re getting divorced, though, Laurie’s career aspirations are at best, 7 or 8 years behind Bill’s.
Fast-forward to the mediation. We’re talking about what she can expect to earn and what kind of job options she’ll have, and she mentioned that after she got out of college, and when she met Bill, she was working full time and decent money. Bill interjected and said “yeah, but it was never significant”.
You could hear a pin drop.
Bill’s intention when he said what he said was to make clear to the mediators that the money she earned was not the determining factor in whether their household was solvent on any given month. He, a detail-oriented person for good or ill, wanted to set the record straight that he had been the one earning the money for most of their relationship and the he could do it absent Laurie’s contribution.
Of course, what Laurie heard was substantially different. She heard that the days when she didn’t feel well but got up to go to work anyway were worthless. She heard that when times were tough financially, but she was able to contribute and they stayed afloat, she didn’t actually do much, and she heard that when she felt pride about being an equal partner in what was, at least for a while, a good, healthy and stable relationship, she actually didn’t do anything significant.
Whether Bill meant to load his comment with so much meaning is still unclear to me. I don’t think he was trying to be mean, and I don’t think he was trying to undermine her feeling of self-worth. In fact, in the context of the conversation, it would have been strategically beneficial to him to inflate her earning potential rather than to undermine it. Nevertheless, once he made that comment, the pain in his wife’s eyes was poignant and the tension it created in the room was palpable. I think that to this day he still doesn't realize the impact that his comment had on her. For my part, I can’t help but wonder how many times something like that happened, and what impact those comments had on the deterioration of their relationship.
What is clear from Bill and Laurie’s story is that a word or comment, chosen without thought, can have lasting and devastating impact. Words matter. They reflect and reveal thoughts. The power of language is that it conveys meaning outside of the dictionary definition of the words used. Bill’s comment, taken out of context, could have meant any number of things, but in context it was a brutal indictment of Laurie’s ability to contribute to the relationship.
The role of the mediator.
A mediator is accurately described as a bridge between what one person says and what the other one hears. In Bill and Laurie’s case, if that moment had been one where we could have drilled into what he meant a little further, we as mediators might have been able to tease out the fact that Bill was asserting his own capability as a supporter of his family, and that he didn’t really mean to say that Laurie wasn’t a worthwhile contributor. We could have also spoken to both of them about their perceptions of the comment and given Bill an opportunity to clarify and amend his comment. It might not have healed all of her hurt, but it would have gone a long way towards clarifying both the significance of the comments he made in terms of the case itself, as well as the intent behind them in terms of how he thought about his wife.
Layers of communication:
Any statement can be thought if in terms of three different layers.
Layer 1: What the speaker wants to convey.
Layer 2: What the speaker says and how they say it.
Layer 3: What the person spoken to hears and how they interpret it.
The best case, as often happens in healthy communication, all three layers are substantially the same. If that isn’t possible, then the hope is that at least the first and third layers are pretty much the same.
In the case of Bill and Laurie, there were problems in all three layers of this communication. What Bill wanted to convey was not what he said. What he said is not what I think he meant. What Laurie heard is not at all what Bill intended her to take away from his statement. Instead, Layer 1 and Layer 3 were so far apart that it caused hurt and confusion.
What do we do when what I say isn’t what they hear?
When a relationship is new and fresh, each person listens to the other hoping to hear what they want to hear.
One more story; a quick one about a married couple who, as it happens, managed to pull things together enough to rebuild the foundation of their relationship.
Husband says “I’ll take out the garbage”.
When told “I’ll take out the garbage”, people in a new and exciting relationship hear “I’ll take out the garbage so that you don’t have to because you are so special to me that I’m willing to do the extra work to make our relationship good and so that you don’t have to sully yourself with the mundane”.
When a relationship is coming to an end, communication is often one of the first casualties. When two people have been using their intimate knowledge of one another to hurt each other or to score points agains the other or to prove that they are right and the other is wrong, communication ceases to be what it used to be. Instead of listening for what they want to hear, people start to listen for the worst possible interpretation of what is said.
Instead of the glowing reasons behind “I’ll take out the garbage”, people in this more toxic kind of relationship hear “I’ll take out the garbage, because I know you won’t. You never do. My mother was right about you…”. The implied criticism may be at the root of the offer to take out the garbage, but it may not. It may be that the person offering to take out the garbage really means “I’ll take out the garbage because I know you hate it and because I know that our relationship isn’t what we both want it to be or what it used to be, so I’ll do this to take away something that you don't like in order to make you happy”. On the other hand, it may mean “I’ll take out the garbage because I can’t stand another minute in this room with you”.
The problem is, so much of what is said is subject to misinterpretation. The fact that a 5-word offer to take out trash has so many possible subtexts and so many potential meanings opens the door for serious misunderstandings within relationships. When those relationships are under strain or dissolving, the misunderstandings and the consequences of those misunderstandings can be magnified beyond proportion and can cause serious and lasting harm.
Communication is complex, particularly in a romantic relationship. Communication is an attempt to convey information, whether that information is an emotion, a call for action or to fill a need felt by the other person. It is made complicated by the fact that when we communicate we rarely articulate the specific motivations behind what we say and we rarely make clear what we hope the other person will take from what we say. It is cumbersome and socially awkward to say “I’ll take out the garbage, and I hope you understand that I’m doing it in order to have a vague but positive impact on our crumbling relationship". There are far more questions raised by that explanation anyway, and by the time that a full articulation of all of the motivations and hopes and explanations of terms and clarifications of this-and-that is made, the garbage has gone from smelly to putrid and more often than not in a relationship that is ending, a tense moment has degenerated into a fight.
There is a complex nexus between what you mean, what you say and what the other person hears. Even if you think through all of the possible ways that what you say can be interpreted and are very careful about what words you use, the other person’s perception of what you say can be impacted by their own emotions, their own assumptions about what you probably mean (regardless of what you say) or their own perspective on the way that communication between you usually goes. That means that you can be left in the frustrating position of speaking clearly and with the best of intentions and yet left with a misunderstanding that causes problems within your relationship.
A mediator’s role is to understand the offer regarding the garbage for what it is. Perhaps it is just an offer to take out the garbage, and there’s nothing more to it. Perhaps it is the implied criticism of the character of the other person. Perhaps it is an effort to build back some of the positive aspects of a relationship gone sour…and perhaps it doesn’t matter, because no matter what is intended by what one person says, the other person isn’t going to hear it that way anyway!
A mediator is a bridge between what you mean and what the other person hears. A good mediator will take the time to understand the situation well enough and to ask enough questions that they will understand what you mean by what you say. Then, a good mediator will take that understanding and the information that you have provided and speak with the other person, taking time to get to know them and to understand what their perspective is well enough to pass your meaning on to the other person in such a way that they will understand what you mean.
This is a complicated interaction, requiring both parties to understand that they are in mediation in part because communication has broken down, and to be willing to use the mediator as a bridge across whom to convey the meanings they hope the other will understand. When this works, communication through a mediator can build or repair trust and it can open lines of dialog that have been closed due to misunderstanding. Regardless of the motivations behind offering to take out the garbage, a good mediator can ensure that those motivations are clear and that whatever you wanted to communicate to the other person by making that offer is understood.
Both examples used here are relatively mundane. They discuss trash and earning potential. They don’t touch on really complex issues such as long-term divorced co-parenting, the hopes and dreams of two separating parents for the mental health of their child, the pain that divorce is causing one person or the other, or any of the myriad larger issues that come into mediation. Even in such simple conversations, however, language choices have a massive impact. It doesn’t take much imagination to recognize how magnified simple mis-communications can be when in a more complex conversation. It is really a wonder that it goes right as often as it does. When it doesn’t, good mediators are experts in working through the issues presented by that kind of communication and making sure that what one person says is conveyed well and accurately to the other person in order to allow for communication about complex and difficult topics.
Alex Tillson is an experienced family mediator in the Portland, Oregon area. He specializes in domestic relations issues such as divorce, custody, parenting time and other family disputes. You can reach him by phone or email: